Three natural resources of information technology

Disclaimer: English is not my native language, so it is possible that my terminology is a little skewed in this blog entry. If you have a suggestion for better words, please let me know.

IT Currencies

Everybody working in the vast field of information technology knows about the three constraints in the project management triangle, namely

  • Cost
  • Scope
  • Schedule

We can translate these constraints in the three currencies of business:

  • Money
  • Effort
  • Time

You can virtually achieve anything in IT if you are willing to spend lots of these three currencies (except solving the Halting problem and similar decision problems).

IT Commodities

You surely also know about the three upscaling commodities of our profession:

  • processing power (think CPU)
  • memory (think RAM or HDD)
  • bandwidth (think network throughput)

If you are willing to invest more business currency, you’ll get more of these commodities. You’ll invest mostly money or time, albeit Moore’s Law seems to dwindle, so spending time, as in waiting for the next generation of computers, is not the superior deal it used to be.

There are three downscaling commodities, too:

  • latency (think caches or parallelism)
  • physical size (think USB sticks the size of a fingernail)
  • energy consumption (think Rasperry PCs that are powered over USB)

These commmodities are getting reduced with every new generation of computers. What once was a super-computer is now a 30$ Mini-PC. I vividly remember my university announcing their latest piece of technology during my first year of study: a computer with 1 GHz CPU, 1 GB RAM and 1 TB HDD. This machine was used by all students concurrently. Today, my phone provides more power and fits into my pocket.

IT natural resources

By Stepanovas (Stapanov Alexander). Timestamp at the bottom right was removed by Michiel Sikma in 2006. - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=350061Now, with currency and commodity defined, let me introduce you to the concept of natural resources of IT. Natural resources are things that have value to the business and need to be harvested instead of being just bought. While you shouldn’t envision material natural resources now, it helps to introduce the concept of a natural resource: You may buy a whole mountain, but the iron ore in it (a major natural resource for the industry) still needs to be mined. Raw iron ore is the starting point for many processing steps, each one refining the input material and producing output material of higher value. There are countless different materials in the world, but only a handful of major natural resources. Whoever was the first to drill a hole in the ground and get crude oil back was a rich man. Keep this imagery in mind when we talk about the natural resources of IT, but please forget about the aspect of mass. Our natural resources don’t have a mass. They do keep a location, though.

Data or information: You’ve already guessed this. The oil of IT is data. Data can be labeled as crude oil, information is refined data then. Just imagine you drill a hole in the ground and it spits out random facts. You could just record the facts and build a knowledge database out of it. If you want to give your hole in the ground a name, you could name it Facebook, Twitter or something alike. Data is processed and turned into information, information is combined and aggregated to give us more valueable information, just like the iron ore example beforehands. In the old days, data was provided by human effort (aka typing). In the era of the internet of things, most data is provided by sensors all over the world. And while data still maintains a location (but increasingly fuzzy in the era of cloud computing), it has no mass. This means it can be copied without cost, a feature no material natural resource can offer. Data as a natural resource of IT is so widely known, it even gave IT its first name: electronic data processing.

Source code: The fabric all software is made of is another natural resource of IT. You could argue that code is just data, but I think its whole processing pipeline is so remarkely different from data, it should be discussed seperately. Source code is still harvested from hand, by humans typing words into a text editor like it’s 1980. Source code is refined to running software programs, a process that got fully automated in the recent years. The software is then used to gather data, distill information out of data or, well, entertain us. Source code is a rare natural resource, because it needs to be harvested by highly skilled workers in a delicate process called programming. The number of programmers worldwide doubles every five years, but the demand for software rises even faster. All the while, we still haven’t figured out to maintain an acceptable quality level. If source code is the equivalent to gold (rare, valueable, sought-after), it most often comes mixed with all kinds of scrap metal.

Random numbers: The raw material of anything cryptographic are random numbers. They might be seen as data, too, but again, I think their unique properties require a separate examination. Random numbers need to be truly random. The higher the randomness, the higher the quality of this natural resource. A lot of random numbers we use (or consume) today are really just pseudorandom numbers, obtained from an ultimately deterministic generator. We rely on this second-grade material because the harvesting speed for real random numbers is pitiful slow and cannot satisfy our need of random numbers. Imagine again that you drill a hole in the ground and it spits out random numbers. You’re going to get rich, because random numbers are the crude oil of cryptography and therefore of every serious data transfer today. If you think about sources of randomness, radioactive decay or cosmic radiation are very high on the list. The RANDOM.ORG service uses atmospheric noise, as if the weather in Ireland would provide much noise – it will rain tomorrow, too. A speciality of random numbers is that they can only be used once to provide their full value. Nobody wants to use second-hand random numbers because they lose their randomness once they are known (much like you can’t bet on last week’s sport events). So while we can still say that random numbers have no mass, they are more similar to their material counterparts in that they can’t be copied and are affected by decay over time.

What now?

This blog post was meant to inspire and to share a question: are those all natural resources in the field of IT? I thought long about it but could only find derived products like blockchain blocks that ultimately rely on brute-forcing one-way functions like hashes in the wrong way. To mine a bitcoin, for example, the most prominent implementation of a blockchain, you only need commodities like processing power and some time. There is nothing inherently “unique” about a blockchain block. Nice choice of terminology with “mining bitcoins”, though.

So, the question goes to you: Can you think of another natural resource of IT? Please leave a comment if you do.

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